Is man the measure of all things?

Worldly Winds (1)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the
spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. 1 John 4.1-3

Disruptive winds
Believers in Jesus Christ want the sails of their soul to fill with the sweet, constant, and true winds of God’s Holy Spirit. The Wind of God directs us day by day into greater depths of mercy, grace, truth, goodness, and abundant life in Jesus. We focus our minds to catch His breezes, deploy our hearts to eagerly desire Him, and set the compass of conscience to value His Kingdom and righteousness above all else. We look to Jesus, exalted in glory, delighting in His Word, praising and thanking Him in all things, and doing all things as unto Him, the North Star of our journey of faith.

But as we have seen, the Wind of God is not the only wind vying to reach and fill our sails. In this world, wherever we go, certain strong winds of doctrine swirl in strength around us, emanating from a wide range of pressure cells in the media, pop culture, the universities and schools, the halls of government, and many other sources. These worldly winds of doctrine blow across the steady Wind of God, and they can disrupt our progress and cause us to lose focus and drift; and, undiscerned and unchecked, they can shipwreck our progress in the Lord, if only for a season.

Primary among these worldly winds is the wind of humanism. Humanism, wrote Leon Wieseltier is both “a pedagogy and a worldview” (“Among the Disrupted,” The New York Times, January 7, 2015). That is, humanism offers an expansive curriculum of works and inculcates a worldview which says, in essence, that human beings are the measure of all things. All understanding of truth, goodness, or beauty can be determined only by human beings exercising disciplined, rational thought.

There is much of beauty, goodness, and truth to be discovered in the worldview of humanism, as Paul showed us in his address on Mars Hill. But many dangers also exist in the gusts that accompany this wind of doctrine.

Humanism defined
The Oxford English Dictionary offers this succinct definition of humanism: “a rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.” It further clarifies humanism as “a system ofthought criticized as being centred [sic] on the notion of the rational , autonomous self and ignoring the conditioned nature of theindividual.”

Leon Wieseltier argued that humanism provides the best way to understand the world and make our way in it, so we ought to resist every attempt to reduce its importance. The great danger facing humanism today, Mr. Wieseltier argued, comes not from religion, but from science, which reduces the uniqueness of the human being by making humans subject to impersonal and irresistible laws of physics (“conditioned nature”), and seeing in humanism something less than a “hard science” approach to truth. He explained, “There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life...In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter.” What Mr. Wieseltier fears is a case of the child eating the parent, because science itself is a product of the humanism which is everywhere present in our world.

Forms of humanism have been in the air since the ancient Greeks began reflecting on the world. But humanism’s great leap into worldwide significance came, first, with the Renaissance – the rediscovery by Europeans of ancient Greek and Latin literature and art – and then, in the 18th century, with the Encyclopedia project of such French philosophes as Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.

Humanism makes the rational mind the final arbiter of all truth. If you can’t explain something by logic and reason, then whatever you are explaining either does not exist or is not relevant. Humanism accepts a place for religion, but only as a subcategory of philosophy; and it demands that all religion must make sense and be explainable within parameters established by human experience and careful thought. Immanuel Kant, one of the foremost humanist thinkers of the modern period, captured the essence of humanism and its relationship to religion in his book entitled, Religion with the Bounds of Reason Alone. Religion has a place, as long as it acknowledges that it must serve the tenets of reason.

Problems with humanism
And this introduces what is undoubtedly the chief problem with humanism: It puts no stock in normative divine revelation. Humanism is happy for religion to have a place in the world, but only so long as whatever religion believes is within the bounds of logical thought. I recall once asking a well-known theologian about his view of the resurrection of Jesus; hes explained, “Dead people don’t rise.” For him, and for many who consider themselves Christians today, the resurrection of Jesus is something that happens only in our minds, or our hearts, and has a comforting and motivating effect on us. To such people it is not reasonable to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus – or the divine inspiration of the Bible, or the incarnation of God, or heaven as a true spiritual place, or conversion as anything other than a psychological event.

Translated into the evangelical world, humanist thinking can lead one to conclude that we only need to take seriously as much of the Bible as we can make sense of rationally – which is to say, whatever we think we need.

A second problem with humanism is its tendency to make an idol out of humanity. When certain authors or thinkers, books or movements, or ideas or philosophies become the guiding light of all our decisions and actions, they have assumed the place of God. Whether it’s Plato or Aristotle, Marxism or capitalism, art or poetry or music, when any of these provides the framework for thinking and acting, they have become the last word on all matters, the final authority, and thus the god by which we prosecute our journey in life.

Much can be learned from humanistic studies, because humanistic teaching in many ways lines up well with the teaching of Scripture. But whenever sailing through the winds of humanism – in reading or studying, enjoying a work of art or music, or discussing philosophies and worldviews – the Christian must always keep the Scriptures foremost and our heart, mind, and conscience grounded in the Spirit of God and His teaching. Reason only functions rightly, as God intends, when it is guided and bound by true religion. Thus, Nicholas Wolterstorff set the trim for our sails some years back by refuting Kant’s understanding in his own book, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Keep the Wind of God foremost in your mind, heart, and conscience, and you can glean the benefit of humanistic studies, without being carried off course by their demands for rationalism above all else.

We must test the humanistic winds that come at us from many angles, keeping Jesus as the North Star of our journey, His Word as our chart and compass, and His Wind in the sails of our soul.

For reflection
1.  What are some ways that you encounter humanistic thinking?

2.  Christianity is rational, but it’s not rationalistic. What’s the difference?

3.  Christians have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.16). How should this help us in gaining the benefits and avoiding the dangers of humanistic studies?

Next steps – Preparation: Jot down some guidelines from Scripture that you think should guide you through the winds of humanism. Use these as a focus for prayer as you begin your day.

T. M. Moore

All the studies in this Winds of Doctrine series are available by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore